Thursday, 26 March 2009

A Quick Zen Like Question

I thought this would be an interesting little Zen like question for you all to ponder. Will be fun to see what answers come up.

A Zen Master once asked me:

What is it that gives this coin both a heads(front)and tails(back)side?

Tuesday, 24 March 2009


I was confronted with an interesting question, last Friday afternoon, in the class to which I had been invited as a guest speaker. It had to do with blessing. Students in the class had been asked to read my memoir, “While I Am Not Afraid”, and the question arose from a scene in the book in which I asked for a blessing from my father on his deathbed.

As I watched my father in what the family thought to be the last hours of his life (he fooled us all, living on for more than a week after this moment,) I recalled the days when I was a small child, and he the rector of a parish in the diocese of St. Albans, just north of London. Too young to partake in the eucharist--not yet, then, “confirmed”--I was always led to the altar rail by my mother and would receive, each Sunday, a blessing as my father distributed the communion wafers and the wine. He would lay a gentle hand on my head and say a quick prayer before passing on to the next communicant. I could think of no better way to bring our relationship to closure. Since he was by this time too weak to move his hand, I had to take it myself and lay it on my forehead, and to say for him the words that came back to me then--but which I have since forgotten.

It was a moving and a memorable moment, and the student was curious to know what that blessing meant to me. The truth is that, as an unbeliver, I was for much of my life somewhat embarrassed by the notion of blessing. It seemed to me to suggest a call to a spiritual authority in which I did not believe, a paternal, not to say paternalistic act of faith that my skeptical mind found impossible to accept. It is only in very recent years that I have found in myself the wish--and I might even say the power--to bless, though without recourse to a "higher power" for the authority to do so.

It has come about perhaps in part as a simple function of age, because in the work I do in The ManKind Project, younger men have asked it of me. At first I was as embarrassed by their requests as by the act itself. Who was I, of all people, to offer blessings? What right did I have to give them? By whose authority? But I found myself, despite those hesitations, responding to the requests, finding simple words that somehow felt right for me without suggesting in any way that they came from anywhere but my own heart. (I was also embarrassed, for most of my adult years, by the very word "heart," but that's another—if related—story.)

So the student's question went to the heart--there I go again!--of something I had struggled with for many years, and I found myself formulating an answer to in the light of what I have learned from the Buddhist teachings: the kind of blessing I can believe in comes out of compassion. It's not that I have earned any right to bless, by means of my superiority to other beings; it's rather a heart-to-heart exchange, what I described to the class as an "I see you" moment, an act of recognition and oneness. Our culture tends, I think, to associate blessing with a hierarchical sense that the blesser has some special gift or qualification which he or she imparts upon the blessee from that superior place. I have come to see it otherwise, perhaps more humbly, as more of an expression of compassion and goodwill. As I told the student, I can receive wonderful blessings from the least expected quarters.

The act of blessing, then, for me, is no more than the conscious opening of the heart to another being at some special moment, accompanied, perhaps--though by no means necessarily--with words of recognition and appreciation. To return to my father's blessing on his deathbed: what I needed in that moment, quite simply, was to know that I was seen and acknowledged. The fact that he was approaching the God that he believed in lent a special gravity to the gift, but the meaning of the blessing did not require me to share in his belief, but rather to accept it from his very human heart.

I googled “Buddhist” and “Blessing”, and came up with this poem/chant…

Just as the soft rains fill the streams,
pour into the rivers and join together in the oceans,
so may the power of every moment of your goodness
flow forth to awaken and heal all beings,
Those here now, those gone before, those yet to come.

By the power of every moment of your goodness
May your heart's wishes be soon fulfilled
as completely shining as the bright full moon,
as magically as by a wish-fulfilling gem.

By the power of every moment of your goodness
May all dangers be averted and all disease be gone.
May no obstacle come across your way.
May you enjoy fulfillment and long life.

For all in whose heart dwells respect,
who follow the wisdom and compassion, of the Way,
May your life prosper in the four blessings
of old age, beauty, happiness and strength…

…which speaks not of God but of the goodness of the human heart. Which is, perhaps more elegantly put, exactly what I’m trying to talk about. I don't know who to thank or acknowledge for this poem, but may whoever posted it enjoy those same blessings he or she has offered those of us who read it.

Moment after Moment

The stars seem so bright this evening. I’ve forgotten how amazing it is to stir my sight into the night sky, lying down on the soft spring grass, allowing my mind to drift where it may through the vastness of space and time. To see the stars is to see the past. As science now understands it, light from the stars takes a very long time to reach us, so we are literally watching the past tumble forward before us. In fact, it is said, if one were to take a spacecraft off earth, going faster than the speed of light, and then be able to turn around, watching with a 'God-Like' telescope, we could see the previous events of Earth unfold.

Albert Einstein theorized that time is relative; its properties are dependent on the density and speed of matter over a given area of space. The faster an object moves, the slower it changes, and the more stationary the object, the faster it changes. Sometimes boredom can make time seem to go so slow, can’t it? And conversely, the busier one becomes, the faster time seems to pass? Isn’t time really just a measurement of change, just a human conception that helps us manage our daily activities of life by compartmentalizing the hours and days?

I think because of change, it is inherent in our human intelligence and desire to see impermanent objects as having a beginning and an end; a creation and destruction, form and substance. Maybe many of us assume that the universe, or all that ever existed, must have had a beginning and therefore will have an end. In the same line of thought, perhaps one would bring up a God as the creator, and then the inevitable follow up question will arise, “But who created God?”. This is all silly. If we just closely paid attention, we could see that nothing exists separately from anything else. We would see that all things arise, because of everything else around it, and nothing exists independent of anything else. As one of my favorite blogger's, Jody Wieler so eloquently wrote
"...reminds me of music, where that chord or note that you hear right now, only makes sense because of what came before it, and where it resolves to in the next moment to come - in a sense, we exist in an eternal state of commingled past, present and future, where each can only be truly known as all are considered."

Buddhists teachings have talked about a beginning-less beginning, and an endless end. The ancient masters try to point out to us that perhaps, our idea of creation and time are just human inventions, and maybe all that is and will ever be has always been and at the same time never was. It is not a God that creates the objects of the world, but only our minds. To see the world as if one moment ends and another begins is a false impression. Moment after moment does not exist. Only this one present moment exists, ever changing and eternal.

I think our thoughts are much like these stars, dwelling on the past, watching them rise and fade, innumerable, unquenchable, so distant from this very moment, one after another. Our minds seem embraced in a mortal dance with creation, splitting the world from one to many. It seems to wrap itself up in the passing moments of the world, labeling and judging each object, giving them permanence and form.

Bruce Lee once wrote,
“Truth has no path. Truth is living and, therefore, changing. Awareness is without choice, without demand, without anxiety; in that state of mind, there is perception. To know oneself is to study oneself in action with another person. Awareness has no frontier; it is giving of your whole being, without exclusion.”

Ah, too much idealism and conceptualizing in this writing. I think I’ll go back to lying on the grass, watching the stars turn in the night sky. Maybe I can forget myself for just a moment in the melodic freedom and blissful rhythm of this moment. There is plenty of time until the dawn comes, right? The stars are so beautiful, and I wish not to lose them.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

"What are you, some kind of Muslim?"

I'm a white guy, middle aged, and to a lot of people around where I live and work in Virginia probably look at me like a typical Christian or agnostic type politically conservative man. I wear cowboy boots a lot, dress in flannel shirts sometimes, speak with a very mild Virginia accent and until recently drove a fairly muddy Dodge Durango. So I've never really experienced any sort of discrimination or mean attitude before regarding race or religion. I've always just kind of fit in with the fabric of the society I live in.

Above, is the vanity plate I decided to get for my truck about 2 years ago. It's ok, feel free to laugh, as I realize vanity plates for a Buddhist is kind of like a Hasidic Jew eating Pork Rinds. Also, I follow a Zen tradition of practice, so the Tibet thing doesn't really fit either. And yes, I suppose, 'FREE MND' could be interpreted to mean Free Mindy, as one kind old man working at a tackle shop asked me who this poor 'Mindy' person was after seeing me drive up.

For about 12 months after I got the vanity plates, I experienced quite a series of unlucky happenings. I've had my passenger and driver's side windows smashed out 3 times and a box of metal hangers stolen(I'm kind of at a loss as to why someone would steal metal hangers). My truck had long scratches run down both sides multiple times, my front headlight broken out and the word 'asshat' scribed into the back with what looked to be a crowbar. To be totally honest, I can be fairly dense at times, and chalked all this up to a series misfortunate coincidences. It is a rather religious conservative area I live in, but it wasn't until I was cornered in an auto parts store by a man who I would gently describe as an angry redneck,(and I consider myself a bit of a redneck)that it dawned on me what was going on all this time.

Out of the blue, this man approached me as I stood in line with my air filter and motor oil and asked in a most distinct Virginia accent, "That your truck?" I nodded yes, half way thinking he was going to strike up a conversation about Buddhism with me. With his hands on his hips, a wad of lovely mint scented chewing tobacco in his mouth and a baseball cap that read 'Lee surrendered, I didn't' he inched up to my face and asked, "What are you, some kind of Muslim?" Eagerly wanting to avoid a most awkward physical altercation with this man and his 2 young children, I quickly muttered, ", ummm....haven't you heard about the communists holding Mindy? I think its time the communists freed her, don't you?"

There was no other way to put it, it was a stone cold bluff, and the stakes couldn't be higher. After a couple of tense seconds, the man spread a big half toothed grin and said, "yea...yea, I think I've heard of that." With that, he scoped up his 2 little bundles of joy and left the store after shaking my hand. The next day, I went to the DMV and traded in my plates.

Don't get me wrong, I love where I live, and most of the people, even the evangelical Christians, are kind, warm hearted folks who are very tolerant of others. Virginia is my home and I don't know if I'd care to live away from it, even if my ex-wives live here. But you know the saying about a few bad apples. Then again, I could just be paranoid. So today I drive around in a Sporty Ford Focus, and unless a new religion comes out with a God named XVD -8763, I think I'll be safe.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

What, if anything, is Buddhism?

This title comes from a fascinating somewhat recent paper by UCLA's Jonathan Silk, one of the great Buddhologists of our time. That paper is titled, "What, If Anything, Is Mahāyāna Buddhism? Problems of Definitions and Classifications" (Numen, Vol. 49, No. 4 (2002), pp. 355-405).

It brings to light the issue of defining our subject area and the amazing difficulties therein. One of my great pleasures over the last three years has been serving on the committee for an American Academy of Religion group looking at "Buddhism in the West." Each year we receive a slew of presentation proposals and choose some to be presented at the annual AAR meeting. Here a consistent theme has come up in the discussion of Buddhism in the West: the so-called "Two Buddhisms" model.

This model divides Buddhists in the West into two groups: immigrant Buddhists and convert Buddhists. The immigrant Buddhists generally try to maintain the type of Buddhism they practiced before, preserving ritual, language, and other elements from their home country. Converts pick and choose aspects they find most helpful, often searching for the "true Buddhism" to be found when "cultural accretions" are stripped away. What you end up with is two quite remarkably different kinds of Buddhism. The immigrant laypeople rarely, if ever, meditate, they donate regularly to temples and monastics, believe in ghosts and take part in (to Western eyes) strange rituals. Western converts meditate a lot, spend more on books about Buddhism than at their local meditation center, and avoid anything looking "superstitious."

On the one hand, this model looks good and may make good intuitive sense. But for those who have studied Buddhism in the West, and for many simply experiencing it, these categories fall apart pretty fast. We find plenty of converts chanting dutifully in languages they don't understand, immigrants meditating assiduously, and so on. Those who cling fast to the model say that this is simply the "Westernization" of immigrants and the "cultural appropriation" of some converts, thus showing the model's continued usefulness, albeit growingly muddled.

Detractors of the model focus on its flaws, sometimes to the point of no longer seeing its usefulness. When I taught Intro to Buddhism to college students, I used this model - basically. For two days I described the "Two Buddhisms" as relatively separate and determinable categories, and then on the third day I showed the problem with the model. It was a very useful tool for introducing Buddhism in the West to new students.

If a better way of classifying Buddhism in the West comes along, a way that first year students can easily comprehend, I'm sure I will adopt it. But what Silk's article brilliantly shows (here in regard to Mahayana Buddhism vs Mainstream or Theravada or Hinayana Buddhism) is that sometimes the old yet flawed schema is the best we've got. Silk's article draws us through a great historical survey and a dazzling assortment of conceptual tools that can be used to determine just what is Mahayana Buddhism. In the end though the answer seems to be that, even with all this work, we still don't have an answer.

The same questions and analysis can arise when we ask, "what, if anything, is Buddhism?" and (for me especially), "what counts as Buddhist Ethics?"

In the end we find that attempts to draw a firm line around our concepts (i.e. to define them) are always doomed to failure. Either our method is flawed, or new evidence (counterexamples to our 'rules') will arise to force revision. We tell our first-year students that, "Buddhism radically downplays the role of gods (devas)." But then we introduce them to Tibetan Buddhism, where the gods - as benevolent deities, malevolent protectors, and archetypal bodhisattvas - play an overwhelming role. Or we tell them that meditation plays a central role in the Buddhist path and then later introduce them to Jodo Shinshu, where meditation as we know it is virtually absent.

It all serves to validate the Buddhist notions of selflessness/emptiness (that no person or thing has intrinsic existence or characteristics) and impermanence (our definitions, whatever they may be, are not going to last forever). It also highlights the failing nature of language itself to grasp reality. If we are wise we see that our labels are just useful designations and do not refer to any inherently existing thing. A good textual demonstration of this is in the Questions of King Milinda (Menander).

In the end we can see the whole exercise in trying to find a 'definition' as either foolish eel-wriggling (a term the Buddha used for the spiritual used-car salesmen of his day) or a skillful way of digging into the rich history and many 'structures' of Buddhism. An answer or answers may be found to our questions, but remember to hold the answers lightly, not clinging to them so that if they no longer serve us one day, we can let them go.

, I must say, is Buddhism. -- Your comments, either eel-wriggling or otherwise, are most welcome. (cross posted at American Buddhist Perspective, but please comment here)

Monday, 2 March 2009

The Jogger

The car was obviously totaled, curled up upon the guard rail flipped over, smashed upon a tree. The rain had just started before midnight and it was apparent I was the first to arrive. I quickly dialed 911 from my phone as I pulled over, hazard lights on, being careful not to run over the parts of glass and debris on the on ramp to the Outer Loop of the Washington DC beltway. The scene was grim and I was all too aware of what I'd find when I looked in the wrecked car.

"Thank you for calling Prince George's 911 emergency line, please do not hang up as your call is important to us. All operators are assisting other people, please hold and your call will be answered in the order it was received." This was the greeting I got and very suddenly I realized how alone I was with this car and whoever was inside this wreck, how very alone I felt. While I walked over to the car hesitantly, I knew I was about to look into a world I was not comfortable with nor necessarily prepared for. There was no one else.

It was rather warm here for late February this evening. The smell of newly fallen rain on the asphalt conflicted with the very brutal smell of burned rubber and gasoline. A tire, still spinning, yet the car dead still. The scent of a beautiful Virginia Pine tree ripped in half by the car's engine torn from its guts. It seemed as time was not moving, still on hold, and the lonely feeling growing as the 911 hold message continued. It all seemed such a contradiction.

All the sudden one car, another motorist, drives by and I frantically try to flag them down. You could hear the car very purposely accelerate away from the accident, away from what they would see. Then another motorist, and another and another; 4 cars passing by, speeding up, not stopping no matter how frantic my arms flapping, no matter how obvious the wreck spilled onto the roadway like spilled milk on a table. They even made attempts to drive around the debris, around the accident and me, accelerating away. And I felt more alone.

Gingerly, I knelt down beside the car, removing a large branch blocking the small view inside the car, flipped upside down, twisted in a ball of metal, glass and pine. As I peered inside, the 911 operator answered finally. It felt like 3 hours, but I knew it was only a minute or two, time seemed to stop. I gave the operator the address of the wreck while I quickly noticed no person or persons were inside the vehicle! But where did they go?? Did they escape? I hung up after the operator said help was on the way, and I stood up and yet another motorist passed. I waved my arms, and this time I caught the drivers eye as he curiously gazed on, like a peeping tom, hiding inside the world of his car. And then he too sped away, and I felt alone.

I frantically looked around calling out into the woods, as if someone could hear me, as if my voice could see what I didn't want to see before my eyes. I saw no one and nothing around. I had no flashlight and the darkness of the night became all to obvious to me. A cop pulled up moments later as I must of looked like a man coming out of the wreck himself, confused, angry and alone. Then another cop then another.....and the loneliness began to fade. Perhaps, not the loneliness felt by the driver....who the cop pointed out to me, up in a pine tree, illuminated by his powerful flashlight....a person, twisted in a mangled heap of flesh, bone and tree....wrapped around another pine tree like a wet sock hanging loosely around a stair banister. Was this real? The added flashlights of the other cops quickly lighted the enormous spray of blood dripping from the trees, on the leaves and pine needles, pieces of this poor person everywhere.

The thing that stood out to me, the thing that I focused on was his tennis shoe, still on his leg, dangling precariously from a branch. Why a tennis shoe? It all seemed so...confusing and unreal. Why was he wearing a tennis shoe? Was he out jogging earlier? The thoughts that go through your mind when you pay attention can be somewhat amazing and disturbing.

The poor fellow, this night, walked through a door he did not mean to walk through, and had no way to get back to the place he never meant to leave. And I felt as if I was able to look through the door as if it was closing, and his tennis shoe was the last thing I saw. Then it hit me, the reason why the other motorist didn't want to stop or help....they didn't want to see that which they knew would be there, they didn't want to see through that if not being next to this body makes death somehow less real.

It is almost spring here, and oddly enough, the thought that this mans blood was going to feed the new growth in that patch of woods entered my mind. His life carried on through those new trees and bushes, through spring, he re-entered the whole....that door, which can open up at anytime, anyplace, that feeds the dead back to the living. I've learned to treasure this terrible moment, his death so horrible, so unexpected certainly sparked a renewed effort within me.

Somehow now, I don't feel so alone anymore.